In the past few weeks I have had several people ask about air travel with photography equipment. I don’t know what has prompted the sudden interest, maybe folks are making plans for summer trips, but traveling with photo gear has been a hot topic.
I recommend a bag that is as large as possible, yet still carry-on legal. I use a ThinkTank Airport Security and the Gura Gear Bataflae 32L is getting rave reviews. NOTE: Scroll to the bottom of this post for some price comparisons on these bags between B&H, Adorama and Gura Gear.
These bags will hold a 500mm or even 600mm lens, a couple of bodies, an intermediate telephoto and even a few shorter lenses. The trick is to remove all the internal padding that comes with the bag. Otherwise you will never get all that stuff in there! I use clothing to pad my gear or you can use LensCoat covers. The outside of these bags is padded pretty well and so far this strategy has worked.
This carry on bag is primarily for the lenses and bodies that you don’t want to put in checked bags. Tripods, heads, flash stands and other sturdy equipment will go in your checked luggage.
With the checked bag fees these days everybody is trying to do as much carry-on as they can. I try to get on the plane as soon as they let me so as not to get in a situation where all the overhead storage is full (I do not even want to think about checking that expensive glass!). Unfortunately, some airlines (such as United) now board those with aisle seats last. At 6’3″ you can bet I always get an aisle seat, so when we did our Costa Rica Photo Tour in summer 2013 this caused me some stress.
Something else to think about is not having your bag scream “expensive camera gear inside.” I try to make my bag look as innocuous as possible. Cover or remove any Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc. logos from the outside of the bag (see Tip #1 below). It doesn’t hurt if the bag looks a little scruffy or dirty either. You never know who might be watching for an opportunity to take off with your stuff.
Here are some tips that I sent out with one of my newsletters last spring:
(You can also find this in my “LEARN” section as a PDF.)
7 Tips for Air Travel with Photography Equipment
1) Disguise your gear.
You don’t want your bag to scream “Expensive photography equipment inside!” so make sure it looks like any other bag—or, make it look worse (perhaps you can even have a bit of fun making it look “extra” undesirable). Cover up or remove any easily recognizable logos like “Canon” or “Nikon.” A bit of black electrical tape works well.
2)Invest in the right bag.
When it comes to photography, seems you can spend money endlessly, but I discovered through lots of experience that having the right bag for your gear constitutes money well-spent. And it’s even better money well-spent when the bag has wheels and your “personal item” bag (e.g. your camera backpack or laptop case) has heavily padded straps. With that said, always double-check that your flight won’t be on a commuter-sized plane requiring you to check in that carry-on bag!
3) Bring only what you need.
Find out the carry-on weight allowance and work backwards from there. If you’re really organized you can keep a list of how much each piece of equipment weighs and tally it up as you pack (beginning with the weight of your bag, of course). Think in terms of what you’ll primarily photograph rather than what your secondary subject will be and pack accordingly. If you’re not sure, ask your photo-tour operator what equipment he/ she recommends.
4) Carry on all but the tough stuff.
Lugging your gear around as carry-on can get tiring so checking it in might tempt you. When temptation arises, watch workers load or unload luggage from a plane; that should convince you to check-in only your toughest stuff (such as your tripod and head).
5) Prepare for security.
Open camera cases and any other equipment bags to make everything visible in order to minimize handling by security-line personnel. And don’t worry about memory cards; simply traveling through the conveyor belt won’t hurt them.
6) Get on first.
When making reservations request a seat near the back of the plane as these rows normally board first. (Note: As I wrote above, I know of at least one airline that now boards aisle seats last no matter what the seat number is, so it’s best to check with the airline when booking.) Now that airlines charge for checked-in bags, passengers tend to push the “carry-on” limit to the limit! That makes overhead-bin space not only tough to find, but tough to procure close by. With thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment inside, you definitely want your bag not only safely secured but secured in sight.
7) Don’t forget a change of clothes.
Remember to carry-on a change of clothing (and, says my wife, Mary, a toothbrush!) in case your checked-in luggage doesn’t arrive when you do. In doing so, think in terms of what you can “pack” into the clothing you’re wearing. Of course, you don’t want to fly uncomfortably, but if, for example, you travel wearing a photo vest use it to store items that would take up other carry-on space. A clean T-shirt fits into a large pocket (and doubles nicely as an appreciated small pillow or extra arm-rest padding on a long, international flight).
While prices are similar between B&H and Adorama, believe me when I say it pays to compare. Sometimes one of them is having a sale on something while the other one isn’t, or offering free shipping while the other one isn’t. Since I’m an affiliate for both, if you ever buy through my site and have any problems let me know. They don’t want to lose affiliates so the couple of times there was a slight issue they were quite eager to make things right.
Also, when checking prices, don’t forget your local camera store. If its price is only a little bit above the big guys, wouldn’t it be worth spending a little extra to help keep a rare independently-owned store in business?
ThinkTank Airport Security:
Gura Gear Bataflae 32L: